Palm Sunday: Variations in the Vestments and Their Colours in the Span of Fifteen Years

Vestments often have a way of shining a light on modern liturgy history -- and this is especially so in the case of twentieth century liturgical history.  One of the most illuminating of such times is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the holiest (and busiest) time of the Christian liturgical calendar: Holy Week. 

Holy Week has quite a bit liturgically going on of course, so this is hardly a surprise. Holy Week was also the subject of one of the first significant sets of liturgical changes that took place in the twentieth century. It can be very easy to forget that between the time of those liturgical changes, enacted in 1955,  a new typical edition of the Roman Missal coming out in 1962, and the even more substantial liturgical changes of Pope Paul VI made in 1969, that these changes all fall within the rather short timespan of a mere fifteen years.  

At any rate, our purpose in this article is not to discuss the desirability or not of these liturgical changes, but rather to specifically show how vestments and their colours were altered during this very short span of time. We offer this as a means of awareness for many may not even realize there were such changes, while for others it might help to explain why they see different colours and types of vestments used at different Masses. Our focus today is specifically on Palm Sunday and we will do another article on the Triduum in the same vein. 


The vestments of the Roman rite for Palm Sunday were traditionally entirely of purple, both for the blessing of the palms and for the Mass itself.  What's more, the ancient use of folded chasubles was still seen; they were used instead of the dalmatic and tunicle as those vestments were considered symbolic of joy (for those who are unfamiliar with the folded chasuble, please see our article, History and Designs of the Folded Chasuble).  

If the use of purple comes to some as a surprise, it does make manifest liturgical sense as Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it must be remembered, still fall within the penitential season of Lent. 


After the changes to Holy Week that took place in 1955, aside from the various other ceremonial changes that took place, so did the particular vestments and some of their colours.  For the blessing and procession of the palms, the vestments now shifted in their colour from purple to red. For the Mass, purple was retained as the colour, however, purple dalmatic and tunicle were now used instead of the ancient Roman custom of folded chasubles.  In this regard then, the only thing that remained a constant, vestment wise, was the purple chasuble of the celebrant for the Mass of Palm Sunday itself. 

The symbolism of the use of red within this context would come in relation to the Passion of Christ, while the Mass itself maintained the penitential colour of the Lenten season. Admittedly, some of the liturgical rationale here is difficult to process, for one might rightly wonder why a singular colour was not used. What's more, if penitential purple is maintained for the Mass, it certainly begs the question of why not also retain the ancient and penitential Roman custom of folded chasubles?  (The answer to this question, I suspect, is quite likely less a liturgical one than it would be a practical one -- i.e. a "pastoral" one -- as folded chasubles were only formally required in larger churches, cathedrals are so on and no doubt that may have influenced this decision at least in part). It is, to my mind, a very unfortunate loss, even if only as an option, given their antiquity and it also dashes some long established symbolism in the process.


The introduction of the Missal of Paul VI, or the 'Novus Ordo Missae,' brought even more substantive changes ceremonially and this trend also extended to the vestments. In the first instance the vestments for all of Palm Sunday were now red, whether for the blessing and procession of Palms or the Mass itself.  Dalmatics were used throughout though seen much less frequently due in part to the elimination of the subdiaconate and in part due to the introduction of concelebration -- which meant that additional (non-folded) chasubles were now also frequently seen in both the Mass and procession of palms.   

Folded chasubles naturally do not form any part of this as they were historically only to be found in the liturgical colours of purple and black. Evidently a determination was also made to use red entirely, perhaps in part to resolve the difficultly in the rationale that I noted in relation to Holy Week as it stood following the Holy Week changes of 1955, with an emphasis on the Passion. Of course, the downside of this is that it creates something of a disconnect with the rest of the Lenten season, not to mention the long-established practice and lived tradition of the Roman rite. 


To summarize, from the perspective of vestments alone, in the span of a fifteen year period Palm Sunday saw the colour of the vestments shift from Lenten purple to red, and it also saw the elimination of the ancient Roman liturgical tradition of the use of the folded chasuble. 

In our next article on this subject, which we will publish later this week, we will consider the same with regard to the Sacred Triduum. 

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